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Ozark - Season 1 - Advance Preview: "Humourless and visually unappealing"

Ozark, Netflix's upcoming crime drama starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, is a frustrating TV show. On the one hand, it avoids so many of the pitfalls that have plagued other Netflix dramas, and features some terrific performances. But on the other hand, it still feels the need to engage in tired prestige tropes, all the while not giving viewers enough to cling to emotionally.

Bateman stars as Marty Byrde, a Chicago wealth manager who, along with his business partner Bruce, launders money for the cartel. When a scheme goes badly wrong, in order to survive Marty is forced to relocate his family - which includes his wife Wendy (Linney) - to the "cash-rich" Ozarks in Missouri in order to launder millions of dollars in order to recoup the money the cartel lost.

One of the bigger issues with Netflix dramas - as well as many other dramas in Peak TV - is that they don't really know when to begin telling their story. Too often series' start off at too early a stage in the narrative, and it results in the entire first season being a tired slog that doesn't get interesting until the end. Essentially, too many series (especially streaming shows) have first seasons that feels like needlessly extended pilots (for a recent example of this, think of Gypsy, the Naomi Watts drama that debuted on Netflix a few weeks ago).

Ozark avoids the same pacing problem by having its first episode clearly set up a feasible premise for a TV show and then moving ahead briskly, never allowing itself to lag. This more traditional approach was refreshing, and made the show quite watchable from scene to scene.

But after watching two episodes, I'm not sure if I want to watch a third, because creator Bill Dubuque and director Bateman fail to make the world of the show an enticing or welcoming one to revisit. One significant reason for that is how it's shot, utilising a dull, grey colour palette that makes the show visually unappealing, and doesn't help warm you to the show's vibe.

But perhaps the show's biggest problem is just how seriously it takes itself. A show can get away with being mostly devoid of humour if its seriousness is earned by some sort of thematic depth or profound message. But even the great dramas that possess those things still retain a sense of humour. The Wire was a harrowing analysis of the decay of a modern western metropolis, but it still found room to inject some humour every once in a while.

Yet another huge problem the show has is it doesn't give us anyone to root for. Marty and Wendy are not particularly likable individuals, but that wouldn't be as much of a negative if I understood them. Instead, Marty remains a cipher of a character. Why did he become a money-launderer in the first place? Is he doing it to survive? Does he enjoy it?

If the show does have one thing going for it, it's the performances. Linney does what she can with a pretty thankless role, and Bateman gives a terrific performance filled with quiet charisma that is almost enough to make Marty work as a character, and is more than enough to make him watchable from scene to scene.

If there is one thing in the show that made me want to watch more is the appearance of The Americans' Julia Garner in the second episode as the leader of a local low-level crime family. With very little screentime Garner instantly injects life into a lifeless show, and the show would be wise to rely on her in future episodes.

Overall, I don't feel comfortable recommending Ozark. It's clearly aspiring to replicate the success of crime dramas like Breaking Bad - it even features bodies being dissolved in chemical containers - but can't help but come across as a far lesser version of those types of shows. Could the show improve? Absolutely. But nothing in these first two episodes reassures me that the people behind the show have any idea how to go about doing that.

Grade: C-

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